Category Archives: Women

A story 125 years in the making

Today is a significant anniversary here in South Australia: it is 125 years since the passing of the Adult Suffrage Bill, which gave women both the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament. SA became the second place in the world to give women the first right (after New Zealand the previous year) and the first place in the world to give women the second right.

The first was the result of hard work, petitions, campaigning, fundraisers, advocacy and support. The second was an accident.

Member of the Legislative Council, Ebenezer Ward, was a fierce opponent of women’s suffrage. When he realised that majority support had swung the other way, he came up with what he thought was a brilliant plan (now sometimes called ‘The Great Miscalculation‘). He moved an amendment to the bill that would allow women to not only vote but to stand for election as well. He thought surely such a radical proposal, one not even the suffragettes had been asking for, would lead to the entire bill being defeated. He was wrong, and he gave himself the unwanted distinction of being responsible for giving South Australian women at the time the widest enfranchisement in the world.*

As a Christian, I’m intrigued and encouraged by the involvement of many church leaders in the movement towards women’s suffrage, and the theological convictions that underpinned their advocacy. (Despite people like Ward quoting the Bible against them). Leading advocates included Mary Colton, a mother of nine and a Methodist Sunday School teacher who also founded the Adelaide Children’s Hospital; Elizabeth Nicholls, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and another Methodist Sunday School teacher; Rosetta Birks, a devoted Baptist who married her sister’s widower and became stepmother to their six children; and Serena Lake, who initially came to Adelaide as a preacher with the Bible Christian movement, filling the town hall for her first meeting. They were well supported by men like Joseph Coles Kirby, a Congregationalist minister; Sylvanus Magarey, a medical doctor and influential member of the Churches of Christ; and Robert Caldwell, a Methodist Member of Parliament. (When the Centre for Democracy made the 1894 Suffrage Petition searchable online earlier this year, I was pleased to see leading Baptist pastor and planter of my church, Silas Mead, had signed it … not just once but three times!)

The most well known and leading advocate for women’s suffrage was Mary Lee, a non-conformist Irish widow who came to SA as a fifty-eight year old to nurse her sick son and stayed after he died. She founded the Women’s Suffrage League, writing letters and making speeches that inspired many. When questioned about “women’s place” in society under God, she wrote, ‘…however and wherever woman can be of best and widest usefulness to her fellow men and women, there, by God’s providence, is her allotted sphere.’

These are the kinds of stories we need to tell; stories of people of faith and conviction working for the good of others and for the good of society as a whole.

Too many people dismiss history as ‘boring’, perhaps because we have failed to engage them with the stories of ordinary people upon whose shoulders we stand and by whose example we can be inspired. That’s certainly how I’m feeling today, and I’m thankful for these women and men. To read more of their story, see “Votes for Women”, by Dr Helen Jones on the Women & Politics website.

But I’m also reminded that history includes stories like that of Ebenezer Ward, who made one foolish move and probably spent the rest of his life regretting it. The Adelaide newspaper of the day described him as “gifted with histrionic power … and curiously deficient in humour,” so it’s unlikely he saw the funny side of it. I think his story is worth telling too … there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, even if not the one he planned.


*It is important to note that the rights granted extended to Aboriginal women. These were taken away from them by the Commonwealth in 1902 and not reinstated until 1962, another shameful chapter in the history of this nation’s treatment of its indigenous peoples.




IWD and Proverbs 31: eshet chayil in 2019

Why do we have International Women’s Day? Why do we need it? For me, it’s about celebrating women and it’s about naming the inequality women experience. I do this not because I am a feminist, which I am, but because I am a follower of Jesus. Jesus calls women and men to follow him, and the biblical narrative invites us together to work towards the restoration and reconciliation of all things.

I love that I get the privilege of teaching and preaching the breadth of the Scriptures, which are full of invitations to both women and men to step into what God is doing. But recently I was asked to speak at a women’s event on one particular chapter of the Bible that I have been reluctant to focus on. Not because I have any problem with the text itself: I’m passionate about all of God’s Word and allowing each part of it and the whole of it to speak into our lives today in all its richness and nuance. But the way this particular passage has usually been used and interpreted in my experience has often created guilt, set an impossible standard, or limited the imagination of women and girls for God’s calling on their lives. (I also note that there is another chapter with a similar acrostic poem with male pronouns and verbs and yet I have never heard anyone talk about how to be a “good Psalm 112 man/husband.”)

I tried to say no to the invitation, and I let them know my reflections on the passage might not be the warm and fuzzy encouragement people could be expecting. But they still wanted me to speak, and so with some nervousness I did, confessing to the group that I probably wouldn’t have turned up to hear someone else speak on this particular passage. But it turned out to be a good challenge for me and from the feedback a good challenge for those present.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share some of my reflections on how Proverbs 31 might speak to women in 2019.

We need to start with the context of Scripture as a whole, this grand storyline of a God who created us male and female and invites us all to participate in his work, rest, and play. He has uniquely called and gifted each of us to be members of a wider community who together play our parts in his mission. In Proverbs 31 we get a picture of one faithful woman playing her part in her context.

We also need to consider the book of Proverbs as a whole. Using an apparently standard poetic technique of the time, early in the book both folly and wisdom are personified as women. After a middle section containing individual sayings applying wisdom to a multitude of everyday challenges and scenarios, both personal and public, the book ends with another picture of what wisdom looks like in practice, in the day to day, in the mundane and the routines of life. So whatever else this poem is about, it is about the practical living out of faith and knowledge of God in a real time and place.

The poem in Proverbs 31:10 starts with a statement of praise, in Hebrew eshet chayil. This has usually been translated as something like ‘wife of noble character’ or ‘woman of virtue’ as if it is setting a standard to live up to. A better translation would be ‘woman of strength’ or ‘woman of valour’ in keeping with how the word chayil is translated throughout the Old Testament in hundreds of other places, with only the references to women in Proverbs and Ruth treated this way. In Ruth 2:1 and 3:11 the KJV translates the exact same word as ‘valiant’ for Boaz and ‘virtuous’ for Ruth. While I would argue that both men and women are called to be both valiant and virtuous, it’s difficult to see how such a gendered translation decision can be justified. The NIV fares only slightly better with Boaz a ‘man of standing’ and Ruth a ‘woman of noble character’. Why not be consistent? If the author has deliberately chosen to echo our introduction of Boaz and his introduction to Ruth with the exact same word, why hide this resonance? It is worth noting how other assumptions might be at play.

In contrast to a standard or list of boxes to tick, eshet chayil seems instead to be a cry of honour, almost a championing cry. As Rachel Held Evans has suggested, perhaps it is even akin to ‘you go girl!’ This isn’t so much about what someone does but about the way they do it – with strength and power, in a way that inspires and receives affirmation from others.

It’s also important to note that this poem is about one specific woman, rather than every woman. It gives honour for what she has done. The Hebrew verbs throughout the poem are nearly all in the qal or perfect/completed tense, which is more commonly and appropriately translated as past. (e.g. ‘she bought a field’; ‘she provided for her family’). This helps us read the passage as a testament to a life well lived, rather than a generalised checklist for others to live up to. To me it finds an echo in Jesus’ affirmation of ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’ It reminds of a funeral I attended of a 100 year-old woman from my church who had been a doctor, a missionary, a mother, a leader, and so much more. Hearing about her life didn’t make me feel guilt or pressure to do exactly what she had done, but it certainly inspired me to follow her example of faithfulness and courage in all circumstances. How might this poem do the same?

It’s also worth noting the remarkable breadth of the woman in this poem’s skills and opportunities. She doesn’t neatly fit into our preconceived boxes of what a woman in an ancient patriarchal society might be expected to be and do. She enlarges our imagination of ways a woman in that context can live faithfully.

How does she inspire and challenge us in our context, with the breadth and depth of the challenges and opportunities we face?

First, I think we need to know who we are as women so that we can respond appropriately. We are created in the image of God, invited as full participants and co-creators in his worldmaking and restoration project. We each have a unique place within this, and we all bring a different lived experience from our brothers, who need us as much as we need them to together contribute to the full flourishing of community.

We also need to acknowledge the challenges that women face, both personal and societal, that can make that harder. This is where we need to stop trying to be warm and fuzzy and name some realities that make me furious, and I believe make God furious too. God is seeking to bring about the reconciliation of all things, and a significant barrier to that right now is what is happening all over the world to women and girls. I have to agree with President Jimmy Carter, who has named the mistreatment of women as the number one human rights issue in the world today and one Christians need to start talking more about.

Women make up the majority of the world’s poor. Women are exceedingly and disproportionately more likely to be bought and sold as slaves and to be refused education. Systematic rape is still being used as a weapon of war. 30% of women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence from an intimate partner. In Australia, at least one woman a week is killed by her current or former partner. In some countries, women are still being ostracised from their communities during their periods, leading to assaults and deaths such as that reported from Nepal just last month.

In our own culture, the majority of women experience sexual harassment as a fact of life, with recent movements such as #metoo and #yesallwomen attempting to name and challenge this reality. Women lack representation and role models at all levels of leadership. Our cultural storytelling still tends to trivialise, objectify and sexualise women … when they are visible at all.

The painful physical realities of many women’s lives – from miscarriage to endometriosis to infertility and so much more – have too often been clouded in shame, borne in silence, or dismissed as overreactions. Too many women feel pressured or limited, dismissed or overlooked. Too many girls feel that they are less valuable or less called than their brothers.

What does it look like to be esyet chayil, women of strength and might, as we find ourselves in this reality?

For me, it has to start with the challenge to step up and speak out. To not be willing to be boxed in to one thing.  We need to be seeking to respond to these realities in our own lives and in the wider world. To not succumb to the pressure as women to be in competition with one another, but to stand alongside and behind one another in all our diversity and differences.

We need to honour the women amongst us; those who lead and those who serve, those who have overcome obstacles and those who are breaking through barriers, those who are struggling just to get through the day and those who are striving against systemic injustice, those who have brought a smile to someone’s face and those who have changed the world. The daughters, the wives, the sisters, the mothers, the nieces and aunties, the friends and colleagues, the teachers, the students, the pastors, the pray-ers, the poets, and the preachers. Eshet chayil, every one of them.

The woman in the poem of Proverbs 31 isn’t a model for what every faithful woman should do with her life. That’s just not how the Bible works. But she is an encouragement to every woman, and every man, to wise and faithful living in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. And she is a reminder to speak words of honour over the women of strength in our lives, today on International Women’s Day, and every day.

Gospel and culture: Wonder Woman, women, and the gospel

Last year, I had the privilege of participating in Tabor‘s inaugural Theologicon. We had talks on pop culture artefacts ranging from Superman to Lord of the Rings, The Fast and the Furious to U2, Game of Thrones to Wolverine, as well as some broader sessions on Pop Culture, the Bible and the Gospel.

We considered how pop culture both reflects and shapes our world.

My session was on 2017’s Wonder Woman, which I loved. (Enough that I went to see Justice League as a result, and I’ve already shared my disappointment and frustrations about that)

In particular, I considered why I think Wonder Woman resonated with a wider cultural moment around the participation and place of women, and how it connects with and can open up conversations about what it means to be human, the role of grace, and the big story of the gospel.

If you’re interested, the video from that session is now available, so I thought I’d share it here. I’d love to hear your responses.


* Note, I didn’t realise at the time that questions from the floor wouldn’t be picked up by the microphone, so unfortunately I did not repeat them for the benefit of those watching later.